33Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.37 Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil

In these verses Jesus is calling to account the Pharisees teachings about the taking, and making, of oaths. In the Old Testament God had commanded that Israel make oaths in his name. We find this specifically mentioned in Deut. 10:20 where God commands, “You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.” (emphasis added)

What this command is teaching is the seriousness with which one was to take an oath. The teaching of the Old Testament is concerned with truth and honesty which is why in Exo 20:16 it is commanded not to bear false witness. This command is so strong that it invokes the name of God when making an oath and in ancient cultures this meant that you were submitting yourself to their righteous punishment of the God should you fail to fulfill your oath. What then does Jesus take issue with in Matt 5:33?

The Pharisees taught that what mattered in the making of an oath was the verbiage that was used. In fact there is an entire mishnaic tract dedicated the subject. A famous example which is given reads that if one makes an oath “by” Jerusalem it is not a binding oath; however, if one makes an oath “towards” Jerusalem then that is an oath that is binding in the sight of God. Instead of promoting truthfulness and honesty as the Old Testament taught they created “loopholes” which allowed for deception and deceit.

Jesus further goes on to show the failure of the Pharisees to understand that making an oath by anything is actually the same as taking the name of the Lord in your oath. The reasoning behind this is seen in verses 34-36 where he briefly explains. One cannot swear by heaven because that is the throne of God, and one cannot swear by the earth because that is his footstool. It is interesting that one would consider making an oath by heaven when that is expressly stated to be the dwelling place of God. Further the earth is God’s creation and as such he has dominion over it as the creator. One cannot swear by Jerusalem (and the Greek of this phrase can be “towards” demonstrating Jesus’ sense of sarcasm) because that is the city of the great king. We would do well to remember that Jerusalem was the site of the Temple and as such the earthly dwelling place of God, housing the ark of the covenant within the Holy of Holies. Finally one should not even swear by their head because we have no control over the color that our hair will be, we are, like the earth, God’s creation. So anything one makes an oath by leads back to making it by the Lord and so it is binding. Jesus then offers a better solution.

Instead of the taking of oaths Jesus is instructing that we need to be men and women of our word. The kingdom of God should be inhabited by those people who can be trusted for their honesty and truthfulness. When we say that we are going to do something then we need to do it. Likewise if we have committed not to do something we need to refrain from doing that thing which we have said we would not do. No longer should we be making oaths using flowery language in order for people to believe us, but rather we should be people who are known for our honesty and truthfulness.

One side note is that this does not prevent us from taking oaths within a legal context as some have interpreted. In those cases that is a political demand and one that is not in conflict with the Scriptures. Should one be called to be a legal witness it is acceptable and right to take the oath on the stand.